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The Need for Accountability in Sri Lanka’s Criminal Justice System: A Glance at Seven Emblematic Cases

Sri Lanka
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Successive governments have promised investigations after numerous instances of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, both during the war and subsequently. Despite the long list of promises, limited legal action has been taken to apprehend, prosecute and hold alleged perpetrators to account. The few cases that have witnessed some legal action have devolved into long, drawn-out investigations, a few arrests and few steps are taken to indict and prosecute. Both the inability and the unwillingness to prosecute perpetrators has hindered progress towards accountability and ultimately contributed to a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka.

The lack of genuine action and trust with domestic structures to deliver on justice led to the growing calls for international involvement, investigations and action, which resulted in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1 in 2015. The Resolution affirms a number of transitional justice commitments proposed by the Sri Lankan government, and on accountability for past human rights violations in particular, a commitment to establish a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law. This commitment, reaffirmed again in UNHRC Resolution 34/1 in 2017, is welcome and necessary. International involvement in truth and justice initiatives is not new in Sri Lanka – previous governments have initiated mechanisms and appointed international officials, such as with the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons and the Advisory Council, both entities appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In March 2019 the UNHRC will take up Sri Lanka and examine progress made on the implementation of Resolutions 30/1 and 34/1. As seen in the past, there is generally increased government activity in implementing commitments, or rather, being seen to do so, in the immediate lead up to UNHRC sessions. This pattern has been repeated this year, with increased movement on several commitments since the start of 2019. However, the genuineness of rushed processes in this manner must always be questioned. There is also no known progress with the establishment of the accountability mechanism as committed to in 2015 and it is yet unknown whether there will be any movement on this in the near future.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, there is considerable public support for accountability. In a recent survey conducted by Social Indicator, the survey arm of Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) 49.3% of the participants said it was extremely necessary that redress for victims affected by civil unrest in the past is addressed while 22.5% believe that it is somewhat necessary to investigate into and hold the perpetrators accountable before the law. On the question of accountability, a significant majority of respondents from all the minority communities were of the opinion that it is necessary to investigate and hold those accountable before the law with the highest support being among the Muslim community (89.4%) followed by the Up Country Tamil community (87.4%) and Tamil community (86.2%). While 67% of the Sinhala community also supported accountability.

The same survey indicated that 72.4% of Sri Lankans believe that it is important to know the truth about alleged crimes against humanity committed by all parties during the three-decade long conflict in Sri Lanka – whilst 18.2% believe it is not important. The support for accountability and truth-seeking comes at a time when the Government has promised both but made limited progress with either and undertaken no advocacy on them.

This report examines seven emblematic cases to evaluate the levels of accountability in the prosecution of cases of human rights violations within Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system. The report is structured in three parts. First, it establishes several recurrent trends causing system failures and exacerbating the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka that the selected cases demonstrate. Second, it makes recommendations for structural and legal reforms in order to address these trends to multiple stakeholders. The final part of the report is a presentation of the seven selected cases analysed in detail, laying out the timelines of the incidents and the investigation and prosecution processes.

CPA notes that cases were selected for this report based on their high profile and for their engagement of the criminal justice system. There are, however, numerous instances of human rights violations which have lower profiles and have not engaged the criminal justice system in any way, not being subject to even preliminary investigations. Many of these cases are invariably from during the war and involve, though not limited to, victims from minority communities. As this report focuses on possible reforms within the existing criminal justice system, however, it has necessarily had to examine cases which have engaged the system in some way, and involve a sufficiently wide range of circumstances to demonstrate different dynamics within the system.

All the cases discussed in this report have undergone initial investigations but have stalled at different times due to different reasons. The cases also span a variety of differing circumstances: cases that have gone through previous state investigations and state initiatives with international involvement (Trinco Five and ACF cases); cases involving media personnel in both the North and South of Sri Lanka (Nimalarajan and Wickrematunge cases); cases where direct allegations have been made about the involvement of the armed forces (Trinco Five, ACF and Missing Eleven cases); and cases occurring following the war (Eknaligoda case).

Whilst some progress has been made with some investigations as a result of early reforms introduced by the present government, CPA stresses that much more is required. In the absence of progress with the accountability mechanism as committed to in Resolutions 30/1 and 34/1, CPA urges authorities to take immediate steps with regard to initiating structural and legal reforms necessary to address cases of grave human rights violations within the criminal justice system. CPA also notes that the call for these reforms is in no way a message to delay action with commitments made in 30/1 and 34/1 and that structural and legal reforms proposed here complement other recommendations CPA has proposed in connection with 30/1 and 34/1.